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“There are no protests in Hong Kong”: An analysis of fake news and bad reporting

The views expressed in this article are the views of the author.

Last March, the government of Hong Kong, whose leaders are prescreened by the mainland Chinese government, introduced a bill allowing local law enforcement to detain and subsequently extradite fugitives and people with warrants to countries that Hong Kong does not have extradition treaties with. Fearing that the passage of this bill would allow mainland China to exercise a great deal of punitive power over Hong Kong, protesters have taken to the streets demanding the withdrawal of the bill, an independent inquiry into police brutality, the release of protesters from prison and the resignation of Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive. Facing immense pressure, Lam promised to formally withdraw the bill sometime this month.

On Oct. 1, the 70th anniversary of Communist rule in China, violent confrontations between protesters and police erupted. A live bullet hit one protester after allegedly attacking a police officer. The protestor is set to be charged for rioting. Elsewhere, others use improvised bombs and acid to challenge the police bullets and tear gas. What led up to this sudden escalation?

The British empire wrested Hong Kong from the Chinese at the conclusion of the First Opium War in 1842. In 1898, the British agreed to lease Hong Kong for a period of 99 years, after which the island would be returned to Chinese rule. In the meantime, Hong Kong adopted Western-style institutions that promoted constitutionalism, rule of law and popular sovereignty via a parliament that modeled the British system. At the end of the lease agreement in 1997, Hong Kong was restored to Chinese rule. But, by the conditions of the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, China promised to preserve the economic and political system of Hong Kong for an additional 50 years. Accordingly, China adopted a “one country, two systems” policy, which meant that Hong Kong would be treated as a “special administrative region” maintained by the Basic Law. This guarantees Hong Kong’s political autonomy and its freedom of speech and assembly until 2047.

In 2014, the government of Hong Kong introduced reforms that severely damaged the integrity of the Basic Law — a special committee that would nominate the chief executive who would then be approved by the mainland government. A massive wave of youth protests emerged for the first time in Hong Kong’s history, demanding the popular election of government officials as outlined under the Basic Law. In November these protesters carried yellow umbrellas, thus dubbing the protests the “Umbrella Revolution.” Although the protests were largely a failure as the demand for universal suffrage went unrealized, it awoke Hong Kong’s youth political consciousness.

We need to question how the Hong Kong protests are portrayed in media. It is no secret that news outlets curate their coverage for their audiences. For example, Bloomberg reported on the stability of Hong Kong’s property values in spite of the protests. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, published an article that in part denounced the use of violence by both government forces and protesters as equally demonstrative of their common disregard for the rule of law, and China Daily, the Communist Party of China’s official English-language news publication, has delegitimized the grievances of the protesters, claiming that they are merely rioters (other Chinese media outlets have failed to recognize the protests at all); and so on.

What we must recognize is that there is no such thing as a “view from nowhere.” All media is mediated by a consciousness (the writer’s mind) that carefully chooses evidence to construct a coherent narrative and then present it to others as fact. However, this is not to say we are irredeemably “biased” or forever divorced from the truth. Instead, what this means is that objectivity itself is conditional. And what might be one of these conditions?

Chiefly, consider the motivation or disposition of the writer: Does the writer write with the intention of deliberately misinforming their audience? And if the writer deliberately misinforms their audience, what is the purpose of that misinformation?

Asking these two questions separately allows the reader to make two important categorical distinctions. By asking the first question, the reader can make the distinction between simple coverage of an event and an opinion article. By asking the second question, the reader can make a distinction between satire like The Onion or the Babylon Bee and fake news. When both of these questions are considered together, we are forced to conclude that the most trustworthy news media is written by those who value objectivity itself.

The honest writer is motivated by objectivity and thus delivers the best possible product within the understanding of their own shortcomings, prejudices and interests. Accordingly, the truth is then facilitated through the condition that a subjective mind mediates. Thus, if an honest writer gets something wrong or their opinion is unreasonable, they cannot be faulted because they understood the nature of the medium in which they were writing. Conversely, the dishonest writer, the author of fake news, tries to do precisely the opposite.

Yes, there are indeed no protests in Hong Kong: The light that illuminates the kaleidoscope of perspectives is a concentrated effort by a government to eliminate, by its law or its weapons, any threat to its power. It profits in the continuation of its governance, and it loses human lives. That is all to say, such a government has nothing to lose at all.